Descriptive and Prescriptive Approaches to Language

I can avoid it no longer. I can see I will have to say something about descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language. For those who are not familiar with the terms, as indeed for those who are, I recommend  the account in Sections 2.1 and 2.2 on pages 5 to 11 of the freely available Chapter 1 of the ‘Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’. The first chapter of ‘The Syntax of Natural Language’  is also useful, giving, as it does, examples of prescriptive and descriptive rules.

A descriptive approach to language takes the view that language is a phenomenon that can be studied scientifically. Such an approach takes as its evidence all aspects of language use but, given the vast amount of data, most linguists concentrate on particular varieties of a language. The major works of grammar, the Cambridge Grammar for example, examine and report on the variety of English known as Standard English, which is, very broadly, the language of the printed word. However, other research looks at all the many different varieties of language as it appears in different regional and social dialects, in different genres and in different registers.

It is to the work of professional linguists that we must turn if we want to find out about language, just as we’d consult a historian if we wanted to know about the causes of the French Revolution or a lawyer if we were interested in the law of contract. It’s no good saying we know about it because we use it. That’s like saying we know all about pulmonary physiology because we breathe. Crucially, professional linguists do not normally give an opinion on whether any particular word or construction is ‘correct’, any more than a biologist would say that a particular cell was ‘correct’, or a physicist that an atom was ‘correct’.

The prescriptive approach to language, on the other hand, takes the view that there is an idealized form of a language to the use of which we all should aspire. Such an approach is often taken by those with little knowledge of how language works and little professional training in its study and it is often based on social rather than linguistic considerations. Prescriptivists play on the insecurity people feel when confronted with a variety of their language which is not their own and which might show them to be socially and intellectually inferior. This has been the case since at least the eighteenth century when grammarians with a knowledge of Latin and Greek and little else peddled to the English middle classes all sorts of notions about English which had no basis in the way the language was actually used. Their heirs are the likes of Strunk and White and most recently Simon Heffer.

None of this is to deny that there is a place for guidance on how to use language for specific purposes. Publications usually want to ensure a uniform style and they produce manuals to promote it. Instruction in public speaking, essay writing, plain English and so on are also valuable, provided those giving it are qualified to do so. Nor is any of this to deny that schools have a duty to teach Standard English. This is not because Standard English is linguistically superior to other varieties of the language, but because it is the variety that allows us to understand and be understood by the widest possible number of other speakers of the language, whatever our native dialect may be. Richard Hudson, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, University College, London in a paper in 2000 made a plea for a greater effort to teach Standard English. ‘Standard English,’ he wrote, ‘is highly codified for foreign learners by commercial publishers. But at present it is not at all codified for UK learners. At one time linguists might have argued that this doesn’t matter, because we don’t need a description of our own language; such descriptions are of purely scientific interest. But that argument was always a bad one because Standard English is not the native language of about 90% of the population in the UK (and I imagine the situation is similar in other English-speaking countries).’

Let me repeat that. ‘Standard English is not the native language of about 90% of the population in the UK’. The value of Standard English as a medium of communication beyond our immediate language communities is unchallenged, but there is no reason why it, more than any other variety, should be anyone’s native language and there can be no grounds for saying that words and constructions found in non-standard dialects are not ‘proper English’. In his essay ‘Standard English: what it isn’t’, Peter Trudgill shows, for example, that, unlike Standard English, many non-standard dialects distinguish between auxiliary ‘I do’, ‘he do’ and main verb ‘I does’, ‘he does’ or similar in the present tense, and between auxiliary ‘did’ and main verb ‘done’ in the past tense, as in ‘You done it, did you?’ Such use isn’t wrong. It isn’t incorrect. It isn’t bad English. It isn’t inferior English. It’s different English. As the subtitle to the current exhibition at the British Library, ‘Evolving English’, has it: ‘One Language, Many Voices’. The description of those many voices is a worthwhile task. Their reduction to one voice by prescription is not.


7 responses to “Descriptive and Prescriptive Approaches to Language

  1. John Boyd

    Alas, the links in the first paragraph are no longer active.


  2. John Boyd

    PS: Did you see my follow up to your answer on the passive? Perhaps you are too busy to reply?


  3. gwinyai kambarami



  4. Pingback: How prescriptive should we be with language? | Word Sage

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